It’s a bling thing…
The periodic claim by India for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond has become something of a ritual. Britain’s continued possession of the 105 carat whopper which still adorns the British monarch’s crown rankles with many in the subcontinent, a small bruise that will not heal and is always likely to flare up from time to time. The diamond was ‘gifted’ to Victoria by Duleep Singh, the 13 year old hereditary ruler of the Punjab when the East India Company annexed his state in 1850 following the dissolution of the Sikh empire in the wake of the two Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1845-6 and 1848-9, both of which the Raj won.
Successive governments, the Archeological Survey of India, parliamentarians and other public figures have over the years argued for its return but the UK has consistently refused. The latest attempt came early in November 2015, shortly before the visit of Indian PM Narendra Modi to the UK. A group of Indians – described in the media as ‘Bollywood stars and businessmen’ – initiated proceedings for the stone’s return in London’s High Court. Their lawyers cited the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 as the basis of their case. This may be a shrewd move, as any mention of the ‘H’ word automatically elicits great public sympathy, though it is not easy, for the layman at least, to see a close parallel between the situation prevailing in pre-independence India and Nazi Germany.
David Cameron certainly does not elide them. When in India in 2010 he was asked on national tv whether Britain would ever return the diamond and replied flatly ‘no’, adding that if such demands picked up steam, the British Museum would rapidly find itself empty. Back in the subcontinent three years later, he castigated the practice of what he called ‘returnism’ for the same reason. Some eminent historians agree with him. Andrew Roberts recently told the Mail on Sunday that this particular piece of tomfoolery must remain part of the Crown Jewels ‘in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent’. A bold man, Mr. Roberts, given how many, both in India and the UK, might disagree with his generous assessment of our colonial legacy.
Part of the problem may lie with the fact the rock is not displayed in a free public museum such as the BM or V&A, not even in their vaults that contain huge amounts of treasures from South Asia we never see. To catch a glimpse of it in the Tower of London, and then only from a moving escalator, an adult has to shell out a hefty £22.50. Beyond this detail, cultural property repatriation is a minefield of law, fairness, ethics and practicality. The internationalist view holds that such things are the common inheritance of humanity and should be kept where they are best looked after, to remind, educate and inspire. The regionalist view disagrees, insisting that cultural artefacts belong rightly and only in the country of their origin. International law has not been much use here. In 1970 UNESCO stepped in to frame an agreement on restitution, but it was not retrospective. Eight years later another committee was set up to remedy this, but this too fell short of the mark as it covered only those items held in safe places and open to the public: museums, libraries, archives.
Arguably more important is the private world of dealers and hoarders, where important collections never see the light of day outside of the auction houses. An example would be the possessions of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger’ of Mysore, which are still in the possession of various British families whose relatives acquired them after his defeat and death in 1799 at the battle of Seringapatam. His extensive military equipment, his personal treasures, books, even the ring he was wearing the day he died (recently auctioned in London by Bonhams) are all in their hands. If these are destined to stay in the UK, we would all love to see them. Even it was from a moving staircase, which, to judge from ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ on display in the V&A - an organ which shows a tiger mauling a European soldier - is the sort of automated contraption the inventive ruler would have been fascinated by.